Back to top

New Center for Effective Philanthropy Research on How Foundations Understand What Works

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Assessing the performance of a foundation is notoriously challenging. How well do foundation leaders believe they understand what is and isn’t working in their foundation’s efforts? How are they building that understanding? What information are they choosing to share with others?

To answer these questions, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) surveyed private and community foundation leaders regarding what they know about what is and isn’t working in their foundations’ efforts to achieve their goals. Drawing from 119 survey responses and in-depth interviews with 41 foundation CEOs, CEP’s new report, titled Understanding & Sharing What Works: The State of Foundation Practice, finds that while the majority of foundation CEOs believe they understand well what is working in their programmatic efforts, more than 40 percent believe their foundation is not investing enough time and money in developing that understanding.

What else did we find?

  • Almost two-thirds of foundation CEOs say they understand very or extremely well what is working in their foundation’s overall efforts to achieve its goals, yet fewer than half say they understand very or extremely well what is not working in those efforts.
  • Eighty percent of CEOs say their foundation uses their knowledge about what is and isn’t working to inform decision-making.
  • More than one-third of CEOs say foundations do not share more about what they know is and isn’t working because they are hesitant to share mistakes or failures about programs or strategies that didn’t work.


The report is accompanied by a series of in-depth profiles, authored by Lowell Weiss of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, to further examine what foundations are doing to understand and share their work. The profiled funders include Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Weingart Foundation, Communities Foundation of Texas, and Impetus-PEF.

This research was made possible by support from the Fund for Shared Insight. We hope that the data and insights from this study help foundation leaders determine the best methods for learning from their work and deciding what to be open about.



Funding Issue Area & Geographic Regions